One of the most popular groups of the late 1960s, Country Joe and the Fish, had a scathing antiwar song about Vietnam, the “I feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag,” whose pungent chorus ran, “and its one, two three, what are we fighting for?”
No doubt it’s being piped throughout NATO headquarters in Brussels, as the answer becomes increasingly clear.
Libya's interim leader, chairman of the National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in his first public appearance in the Libyan capital Tripoli in front of 10,000 people told his audience, “We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where Sharia is the main source for legislation, and this requires many things and conditions.”
Is this what the NATO-led coalition of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Qatar, Spain, Britain and the U.S. has been fighting for? As the campaign was heavily based on air superiority, as in Serbia in 1999, the coalition forces have been spared the heavy casualties suffered by Gadaffi supporters, rebels and hapless guerrillas caught in the cross between the two, but the end question remains – have Western powers intervened to overthrow a brutal yet secularist Arab dictator, a la Iraq, only to see it replaced by a post-dictatorship government incorporating religious elements?
What’s wrong with the picture?
The answer, briefly put, is Western obtuseness about the genuine aspirations of Muslim peoples suffering under years and decades of brutal repression by their leaders who curried favor, and increasingly since 9-11, by repressing indigenous radical Islamic elements, a policy which conveniently both scored brownie points with Washington and Tel Aviv while removing threats to their own leadership.
Exhibit A – Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak succeeded to the presidency in 1981 after President Anwar el Sadat was assassinated by fundamentalist army officers during a military review for, among other things, having made peace with Israel two years previously, a gesture for which he was handsomely rewarded with aid from the U.S. Washington’s policy of fiscal largesse continued under his successor Mubarak. Sadat in turn followed the policies of his predecessor, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who harshly suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, but in egypt’s new, post-Mubarak “Arab spring,” which has announced its intentions to stand in the Egyptian parliamentary election scheduled for later this month, where it is expected to win handsomely.
Iraq? Well, secular strongman Saddam Hussein like Nasser clamped down on fundamentalists, but being an equal opportunity dictator, expanded his list of political opponents to include Kurd separatists and Shias as well. Saddam won the tacit backing of the West for his ill-advised invasion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which began in September 1908. When it ended eight years later, estimates of casualties range from 500,000 to more than a million, but fundamentalist Iran, now an Islamic republic under Ayatollay Khomeini, was “contained.”
And now, eight years after Saddam’s overthrow? Earlier this month pro-Iranian Shia leader Moqtada al Sadr called for Iraqis to rise up against the government and to attack U.S. troops if they do not depart the country by year’s end. Mixing Iraqi nationalism and Shia religiosity, Al-Sadr proclaims that his goal is to institute “Islamic democracy” in Iraq.
And the traumas of Afghanistan, entering its 32nd year of civil conflict, with NATO and U.S. contributions for the past decade, are too well known to recount here, except perhaps to note in passing that Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Muhammad Omar in April 1996 assumed the title of Amir al-Mu'minin ("Commander of the Faithful") after making a dramatic theatrical gesture by donning a garment that allegedly belonged to the Prophet Muhammad, carefully preserved inside the Mosque of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammed in Kandahar.
This brief survey illuminates some unpleasant truths for both European and Washington pundits.
First and foremost is the fact that while many Muslim populations groan under the repressiveness of their leaders, in many cases their elites cut deals with the West, which muffled Western criticism as long as the regimes a) kept the energy flowing and b) since 9-11, repressed their Islamic fundamentalist elements, a win-win formula until earlier this year.
But secondly, as events of the “Arab Spring’ earlier this year have proven, these societies and their undemocratic systems have in fact proven to be political and societal pressure cookers, with burgeoning young, Internet-savvy populations making common cause with their parents and taking to the streets in massive numbers with some success, most notably first in Tunisia, then Egypt and latterly, Libya. A number of other Arab nations, including Yemen, Syria and Bahrain have successfully thwarted their population’s demonstrations for increased political participation, but the fact remains that the situation remains extremely fluid.
All in all, what the events represent is a crumbling of the old tacit agreement between Western governments and Middle Eastern governments and the question now is what will replace it.
While predicting events in the Middle East is a fool’s errand, the overall element common to all of the changes noted above is an increased participation of Islam in the nations’ future political life, a prospect that severely unnerves both the U.S. and Israel, the latter in particular.
If there is a silver lining in any of all this for the West’s “Onward Christian soldiers” ideologues, it is the fact that virtually all the Middle Eastern nations in political upheaval will have to sell their oil somewhere, though the terms of such arrangements could shift dramatically with new administrations incorporating Islamic elements previously excluded from the political process.
Beyond this simple economic truth, all bets are off, but what is increasingly clear is that the Middle East’s masses are not embracing “democracy” as envisaged by their European and American military assistants, but rather something incorporating everything from al-Sadr’s “Islamic democracy’ to Sharia law. Given their experience under their secular dictators, it is hardly an unexpected development, however much is might unsettle oiligarchs in Wall St. and the City of London.
Perhaps the only unanswered question is why it took so long for it to happen.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com